In a sharply worded ruling Monday, the state Appeals Court reined in the Minnesota Department of Education's ability to sanction school districts accused of inadequately serving students with behavioral or learning disabilities.
A three-member appeals panel found flaws with the education agency's handling of a complaint against the Farmington school district. The judges also said the department went too far when it ordered the district to pay private tutoring fees for a special-needs boy who was often removed from class for hitting, threatening and yelling at his fellow first-graders.
The court rejected the department's "conclusion that it has unlimited discretion to impose any corrective action whatsoever." Instead, the judges said a remedy must be closely connected to the problem at hand.
How schools handle special education students is getting increasing attention, especially as school district costs for those programs rise.
Sara Ruff, an attorney who represented the Farmington district, said Minnesota courts have typically deferred to the state agency's rulings on special education. That's what makes Monday's ruling so significant, she said.
"This has far-reaching consequences for school districts around Minnesota because it talks about the limits on the department's oversight authority," Ruff said.
Education Department spokesman Randy Wanke said the agency is "in the process of reviewing the ruling and exploring our options."
In this case, a father complained to the department last year about the way Farmington schools had dealt with his son's special learning needs. An investigation by the department found that the school committed multiple violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act and ordered the district to pay half of the private tutoring costs.
Among other findings, the Education Department concluded that the school failed to develop an individualized education plan that included positive behavioral interventions. Because the school frequently segregated the boy from his peers, the father needed to hire the tutor to make sure he didn't suffer academically, the agency determined.
The appeals panel of Judges Natalie Hudson, Bruce Willis and David Minge criticized the Education Department's investigation as one-sided, noting that officials never visited the school nor did they make "substantive inquiries" about the case with school personnel.
In her written opinion, Hudson pointed to records that showed the boy making academic progress during the year. As a result, Hudson wrote, the requirement that the district absorb tutoring costs was inappropriate.
If the agency's ruling stood, Hudson said, any parent of a child receiving special-education services could seek reimbursement for private tutoring.
"The policy and financial implications of such a ruling go far beyond what we believe the IDEA contemplates or authorizes," she wrote.